“Do you know what a Sukkah is?” Howard Witkin asked me, as we sat in a booth at Pico Kosher Deli this past week, getting ready to order our food. I shook my head no.
“Its basically an open air pavilion you build in your backyard for the holiday of Sukkot,” he continued; “Mine’s like a big bamboo screen cabana, with a roof of palm fronds draped in zillions of twinkly lights and paper lanterns.” You invite over all of our friends to eat and drink and celebrate—like having Thanksgiving dinner every night for a week. You drink, play games, sing, talk and just put aside all of your worries and chill with friends,” he explained between bites of pastrami.
“Do you know what Sukkot is?” he then asked. I shook my head again. There’s a lot that I don’t know about Jewish holidays and traditions, but I was eager to learn. One thing I did know: the Sukkah Hill Etrog liqueur I had been sipping on for the last few minutes was absolutely delicious; the essence of pure citrus with bits of passion fruit and some of the most divine aromatics I’ve ever smelled in a glass. “Do you know what an Etrog is?” Howard then asked. I shook my head no for a third time. “It is the original, oldest, most ‘heirloom’ citrus fruit. It’s the most perfect fruit in the world. It has the smell of the Garden of Eden.”
So that’s why the aromas were heavenly! “During Sukkot, you’ll see Etrogs for sale around here at sixty to a hundred bucks a piece,” Howard continued; “Because they have to be perfect.” The perfect size, the perfect shape, no bruises or blemishes.
Why so picky? Because throughout the week of Sukkot, when everyone is together, eating and drinking in the Sukkah, a blessing is recited over a Lulav and an Etrog. According to Wikipedia, Rabbinic Judaism believes the biblical phrase peri eitz hadar (פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר) from Leviticus 23:40 refers to the Etrog:
On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
Grammatically, the Hebrew phrase is ambiguous; it is typically translated as "fruit of a beautiful tree," but it can also be read as "a beautiful fruit of a tree.” For that reason, Etrogs are carefully selected for the performance of the Sukkot holiday rituals.
“But there’s no way you’re paying sixty to a hundred bucks per Etrog to make this liqueur,” I said, soaking up every bit of previously-unknown information about Jewish history and tradition, and waiting for Howard to explain further.
“No,” he answered matter of factly; “because you have to do something with all the imperfect Etrogs.”
“When God gives you imperfect Etrogs, you make Etrog liqueur?” I asked with a smile.
Something like that.
Howard and his wife Marni Witkin started the Sukkah Hill Spirits company (“When we built our house, we thought of it as a Sukkah on the hill,” he told me) after his wife Marni, an avid baker, began experimenting with her own infusions at home. The idea of an Etrog liqueur seemed like a fun idea for holiday celebrations with friends and neighbors, so Marni began working with sugar cane spirit and all natural ingredients to make her elixir, one that was both delicious and Kosher. They managed to find an orchard in California with Etrog trees, grown entirely from seed—not grafted—and tended by hand without pesticides or machines, which made for a fragrant and flavorful citrus. It wasn’t until a friend from the grocery business came by and tasted it (and utterly freaked out) that the idea of actually selling the Etrog liqueur became feasible.
I have no doubt in my mind that the above story happened exactly as Howard stated it because that’s pretty much how I reacted. Imagine a clean and balanced limoncello, but without the coloring or cloying sweetness. Now add in just a touch of tropical lushness on the mid-palate, with a zingy, zesty finish that lingers on the back of your mouth for a full five minutes. Don’t like sipping liqueurs? Make a Margarita with it. Make a Sidecar. Make your favorite citrus-based cocktail at home, then sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s that good.
And then there’s the Besamim.
As I sat there, gorging myself on thin-cut pastrami and rye bread, Howard enlightened me as to the Jewish ceremony of Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat and involves lighting a Havdalah candle while blessing a cup of wine and sweet smelling spices. Those spices are called besamim in Hebrew, and they’re the basis of the Sukkah Hill Besamim liqueur. According to a few sources online, the sages instituted the “smelling of fragrant spices (besamim) in order to comfort the soul,” which is saddened by the departure of the “extra soul” that it received on Shabbat. What is the extra soul?
On a basic level, this refers to the fact that on Shabbat a person is more disposed toward relaxation, joy, and celebrating the holy day with extra food and drink.
What better way to relax on Shabbat with a bottle of Besamim? Particularly in a Bourbon cocktail with ice. Brimming with clove, cinnamon, and other baking spices on the nose, imagine something between an Italian amaro and an herbal German liqueur, sweet and pungent on the palate with a savory and spicy finish. While the classical heritage of amaro and other localized European aperitifs has played a huge role in the popularity of those spirits, it’s also quite interesting to think about the millennia of Jewish tradition being infused into the Sukkah Hill liqueurs by Howard and Marni.
The spirits world has promoted history and tradition as a marketing tool for the last decade, using authenticity as a draw for consumers who want to follow protocol. For example, the bold flavor of Fernet Branca has made it one of the most popular liqueurs on the market. The fact that it’s made from a secret Italian recipe that dates back to 1845 makes it even more interesting to curious consumers who want to get in on that heritage. On that same note, the Sukkah Hill Etrog liqueur is one of the best citrus liqueurs I’ve ever tasted. The fact that it’s Kosher, and made with a special fruit that may date back to the Garden of Eden makes it just as compelling as traditional Fernet, in my opinion.
Granted, the heritage of the spirits themselves may not be thousands of years old, but the culture they represent and the history behind its traditions most certainly are. Although the flavors and aromas in the bottle arise from the Witkin’s family traditions, their Etrog and Besamim liqueurs are attracting more attention from mixologists and social media than from the Kosher world.
Simply put, you can enjoy either of them far beyond the holiday season, outside of the celebrations from which they draw their inspiration.